How 10 people, some cold concrete and a cardboard shelter revived my optimism

Last night I spent the wee hours of the morning with the five individuals who have been campaigning and sleeping outside for the 5 Days for Homeless national campaign as well as my three co-workers, Eric, Brodie and Adam. It was fairly late/early when the four of us crawled into the makeshift cardboard shelter the five volunteers had created.

The night was terrible, am not even going to bother to sugar coat it. The ground was cold and the wind did not stop, the smell inside the shelter was a pungent combination of wet dog, feet and the kind of musk only a heap of unwashed humans can create.

10 of us were crammed into this shelter, which became pretty beneficial as despite the aroma that 10 unwashed people give off, 10 unwashed people also give off a lot of heat. The shelter was well made and supported so it was a fairly stable area to sleep in, however the constant fear of one of the 7-20 lb rock’s that were holding the roof down crashing through what seems like flimsy cardboard  kept me awake throughout most of the night.

Getting up this morning wasn’t all that bad. It was cold and grey but it seemed that once I woke up there was no more incentive for me to remain “in bed”. Unlike at home where my huge comforter and soft futon mattress beckon me long after I have begun my morning routine, there was nothing in the dank and cold cardboard ground I was sleeping on to keep me there.

The interesting thing about my sleep was the physiological aspect of being miserable. Annoyed at the wind, annoyed at the person shifting around next to me, annoyed that this is something people do every night, the negativity was more demoralizing then the physical discomfort.

This morning I shrugged on my neon colored jacket and hit the main area of campus to solicit some donations. Wearing the brightest piece of textile known to man I figured no one would be able to walk on past. How wrong I was. We have become so conditioned to ignore those who ask for help or look to be in less than desirable situations that many walked right on by even when it was abundantly clear I was not homeless.

The classic lines such as “I don’t carry change” or “I don’t have any change” (as they pat their pockets and a faint chinning noise can be heard) or the straight up walk-by-don’t-make-eye-contact-if-I-don’t-see-them-I-don’t-have-to-feel-guilty technique were all employed. The most frustrating one was the avoidance tactic. Of course, you see me, of course, you can hear me asking you and yet you chose to not acknowledge that another human being is speaking to you? Classy UofL. Not just students either, three professors walked right past me after I had asked them for change without saying a word or even making eye contact. A fine example they provided.

Those individuals, although numerous, were far out shadowed by all those who did stop and did give whatever they could. Whether it was $10.00 or $0.10 every amount is truly appreciated and even the acknowledgment means something. I also struck up a couple interesting conversations about the merit of the 5 Days events.

On professor questioned me on the use of humorous tactics to get donations and thought it to be making light of the situation and a poor reflection on the cause that is being advocated. While humor may look like the participants are making light, in fact humor is often used as a coping method when dealing with jarring life style changes or a threat to basic rights. These five individuals have chosen to do this for the week and came prepared for what was in store, however I doubt that psychologically any of them were ready for the constant cold, the loss of all comfort and the lack of support from many people.

This event is not about proving that five people can hack it as homeless, far from it. It is meant to create visible awareness about the homelessness problem all across Canada and act as a weeklong fundraiser for charitable organizations in Canadian cities. The part of being homeless that is harder to see and even harder to truly empathize with is the physiological aspect. Everyday not being sure of a hot meal, a warm bed or even a space to call your own; everyday some have no choice but to beg for change to afford coffee or some food. Worst of all is that many see no end to this lifestyle Yes, there resources available but those resources are scarce and there are many out there who fall to the bottom of the pile.

As a child, I didn’t have the most stable living environment. For reasons that are unnecessary to go into, growing up I experienced periods of uncertainty of where my family and myself would be sleeping that evening or that week or next week and how we would be able to move on from there. Thankfully my sisters and myself were incredibly fortunate in having family members who were able to support us and were able to ensure a level of safety and security and there came a time when housing and security were no longer questioned and just accepted as a right of life. Not every youth has those resources and that support system and not every homeless person is alike. There are varying reasons and motivations for turning to the streets, mental health issues and addictions notably, but there are the more subtle reasons. Depression is very common amongst those who are homeless and resource’s are hard for them to find as many of the resources available are specific to high needs individuals (re: families, addicts, those with mental health illness…). The working poor is also common, especially in Alberta. Abuse in the home is a prime motivator for someone to leave home, women’s shelters and youth emergency homes are often at capacity with women and children who have left their abusive enviroments but do not have the financial stability to support their families right away.

These past 12 hours have given me a great deal of optimism for the future of humankind. There are people who truly care and care enough to sacrifice basic needs to help those less fortunate.

Please give to those organizations who work tirelessly to provide resources in whatever city you live in. Every human being deserves to be treated as such and every human being deserves a little humanity in the face of hardship. I am sure that many are thanking all the participants of this event and without these individuals who took the time and made the effort the world wouldn’t be the same place. I thank them and I hope you will too.

(p.s. sorry I wasn’t able to live tweet, my BlackBerry stopped working yesterday which meant a cut off of all communication…)

Tagged , , , , , , ,

4 thoughts on “How 10 people, some cold concrete and a cardboard shelter revived my optimism

  1. padschicago says:

    Great posts! Thank you so much for all you are doing for the homeless, and sharing your experience. You have grasped a good perspective of what life is like for me, and other homeless. I wish everybody experienced this “life” to help them understand more about us. We need to cure the negative stigma that so many people have of the homeless and change it to compassion. Thank you–great job!

  2. Thanks for your work to make the issue of homelessness more visible, the call to support agencies that help the homeless in these admittedly difficult times, and your interesting content. I think most cities have more homeless people than homeless resources. We need more folks like you to take up the cause. Thanks! If I do a homeless blog roundup sometime soon, I’ll include your article. A first hand glimpse at life in a homeless shelter is a great introduction to the hardships and sheer discomfort faced our less fortunate neighbors.

  3. criacriavolvervolver says:

    This has brought tears to my eyes.

  4. […] blogged on my experience from last night at, so feel free to check it out. I echo Eric’s sentiments in giving serious credit to the five […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: